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Posts Tagged ‘Fire And Fury Inside The Trump White House’

I rarely read books on contemporary affairs because as soon as the book comes out, it immediately becomes dated, as current events have long surpassed it and left it far behind. But when I saw ‘Fire and Fury : Inside the Trump White House’ by Michael Wolff at the bookshop last week, I couldn’t resist getting it. I did a readathon the last two days and stayed up late and finished reading it.

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‘Fire and Fury’ starts the story from the day the presidential election results are announced in 2016, which results in disbelief in the Trump camp, and goes on to describe the days and weeks of transition leading up to the inauguration, the controversies that start from the day of the inauguration, the fires and controversies which arise everyday after that, many of them lit by insiders including the president himself, and the account continues till around October last year when Steve Bannnon gets fired. During this fascinating journey that Michael Wolff takes us inside the White House, he describes the main players, the relationships between them, the tussle for power and influence among them, the adhoc way things work because of the complicated formal and informal command and power structure. Most of the major controversies – the executive order on immigration, the firing of Sally Yates, Trump’s relationship with Comey and the firing of Comey, the multiple attempts at repealing Obamacare, the Russian affair, Trump’s comments on North Korea – all these and more are covered in the book. Those of us who follow the news closely would already know most of what the book says, but the book tries delving a little bit deeper and tries to show us what happened behind the scenes and the complexity of the events as they unravelled. It is fascinating to read. Michael Wolff’s prose is spare and journalistic and the pages fly.

Some of the things I liked about the book are these. Michael Wolff tries as much as possible to stick to the facts and events and avoid judgements. If there are judgements, it is typically one of the characters judging the other. Wolff tries to present things as he saw them or as they were described to him. This results in an interesting experience while reading. For example, when Michael Wolff describes how the much reviled Steve Bannon, ended up becoming the chief strategist at the White House, we don’t really look at him as a bad person. He seems to be someone who never got a free pass – he works hard, he is from a modest background, he worked hard to get a good education, he never succeeded brilliantly in anything he did, but he managed to do reasonably well, his thinking is clear and not fuzzy, and now in his sixties he got an opportunity to do something significant – if we look at him this way, it is hard to hate him. Of course, the courting of the extreme right, the stepping on everyone’s toes and turning the government and all previous policies upside down hasn’t endeared him to many. In another instance, there is a description of a meeting between Trump and the national security team, which I liked very much. It goes like this.

“For two hours, he angrily railed against the mess he had been handed. He threatened to fire almost every general in the chain of command. He couldn’t fathom, he said, how it had taken so many months of study to come up with this nothing-much-different plan. He disparaged the advice that came from generals and praised the advice from enlisted men. If we have to be in Afghanistan, he demanded, why can’t we make money off it? China, he complained, has mining rights, but not the United States. This is just like the 21 Club, he said, suddenly confusing everyone with this reference to a New York restaurant, one of his favourites. In the 1980s, 21 closed for a year and hired a large number of consultants to analyze how to make the restaurant more profitable. In the end, their advice was : Get a bigger kitchen. “Exactly what any waiter would have said”, Trump shouted.”

For those of us who keep wondering how this man – who gets easily annoyed and angry, who has a very small attention span, who doesn’t care about details, who had a long string of affairs, who cheated on every one of his wives, who probably cheated on taxes, who probably is unethical – got elected as president and got the support of intelligent people, this passage offers insights. When he applies his mind he could get to the core of the problem, he could simplify things to a level that it would be easy to find an answer. He knew how to do this when he wanted, and he knew how to communicate this to his voters and they responded to him. It is unfortunate that the rest of his record and his behaviour and his past weigh against him.

There are astonishing things that the book says. Like these.

(Note : The first paragraph is my own paraphrase of the passage in the book.)

Before running for the presidency, Trump sought his wife Melania’s approval. Melania thought he would win. But his daughter Ivanka thought he wouldn’t, and distanced herself from the campaign and mocked Melania for her encouragement.

“Trump had little or no interest in the central Republican goal of repealing Obamacare…All things considered, he probably preferred the notion of more people having health insurance than fewer people having it. He was even, when push cane to shove, rather more for Obamacare than for repealing Obamacare.”

For a long time, I always thought that ‘liberal’ was good and ‘conservative’ was bad, and I considered myself a liberal. (‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ mean different things in different countries and cultures, of course, and what is conservative in one country might be regarded as a liberal in another. I am talking about the American definition of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ here.) The three conservative positions that I found hard to accept were – antagonism towards abortion and freedom of choice and trying to repeal the Roe vs Wade decision; restricting the rights of people who are LGBT and trying to annul gay marriage; the right to carry arms. In many other issues, I could find good logic in the conservative point of view, though sometimes I may not agree with it. Like, for example, less government intervention in the market, less red tape in bureaucracy, reduction of taxes. Then I discovered that I had friends who probably had a conservative point of view. They were good people. They loved their country and family. And they loved me as a friend. And that led me to think that ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are labels. People are people – they are complex and beautiful. This book describes some such people – people who have a conservative point of view, but who are good people, and who are admirable and hardworking.

For example, this is a description of Judge Neil Gorsuch, who Trump nominates to the Supreme Court.

“Judge Neil Gorsuch was a perfect combination of impeccable conservative standing, admirable probity, and gold-standard legal and judicial credentials.”

And this is a description of Katie Walsh, the White House deputy chief of staff.

“Katie Walsh, the White House deputy chief of staff, represented, at least to herself, a certain Republican ideal : clean, brisk, orderly, efficient. A righteous bureaucrat, pretty but with a permanently grim expression, Walsh was a fine example of the many political professionals in whom competence and organizational skills transcend ideology.

Most government and political organizations are not run, for better or worse, by MBAs, but by young people distinguished only by their earnestness and public sector idealism and ambition. (It is an anomaly of Republican politics that young people motivated to work in the public sector find themselves working to limit the public sector.) Careers advance by how well you learn on the job and how well you get along with the rest of the swamp and play the game.

Almost right away Walsh became a key player in the campaign, a dedicated, make-the-trains-run-on-time power centralizer – a figure without which few organizations can run.”

If there is one person featured in the book, whom I would like to meet in person, it would be Katie Walsh.

There is a passage at the end of the book which goes like this.

“Beyond Donald Trump’s own daily antics, here was the consuming issue of the White House : the ongoing investigation directed by Robert Mueller. The father, the daughter, the son-in-law, his father, the extended family exposure, the prosecutor, the retainers looking to save their own skins, the staffers who Trump had rewarded with the back of his hand – it all threatened, in Bannon’s view, to make Shakespeare look like Dr.Seuss.”

This passage made me laugh. It made me feel that reading the events described in the book was like watching a season of ‘House of Cards’ crossed with ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’. It would have been comic if it wasn’t real. It also made me ponder. In one of my favourite TV shows called ‘Younger’ one of my favourite characters Kelsey summarizes a human being’s life like this – that when we are young, we are taken care of by others and when we get very old, we are taken care of by others, while in between, we are chasing money. It is, of course, a simplistic point of view. Because, in addition to money, we are also chasing power, status, influence, human relationships, happiness, love, professional and personal fulfilment. Some of us focus on one set of these variables, and some of us focus on others. Many of us believe that money, status and power will bring the rest of the good stuff. Most of our life – our education, our career, our relationships – are based on this belief. But what lies at the end of the tunnel? Is it the glorious light? This book depicts one example of what lies in store. Most of the characters peopling this book are rich people with lots of influence and power. The main protagonist, Donald Trump has got nearly everything that an average person desires – lots of money, a beautiful wife and family, influential status, lots of power. But is this the good life? Is this the best version of a human life? This book doesn’t make us think so. If this is all that is waiting at the end of the tunnel – chaos, complexity, messiness, jealousy, betrayal, people plotting against each other – why do we keep doing what we do? Why do we keep running this race, playing our parts in the human drama? It is hard to prevent the wave of existential angst from washing over us and ponder like Albert Camus does in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus‘ – “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem…Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.” When we have survived this wave of existential angst, the place to look for answers is probably not Camus, but maybe Voltaire, who proposes in ‘Candide‘ that we take pleasure in the small things in life and enjoy them. Or as he beautifully puts it – “We must cultivate our own garden.”

Have you read ‘Fire and Fury‘? What do you think about it?

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